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With child abuse, we need to talk about original sin

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:19
What is distinctive about the Catholic Church that might have fostered child abuse?David Goehring

The statistics attached to the Interim Report of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse have confirmed what many people suspected – that while child abuse has been widespread in Christian and secular institutions, the Catholic Church is dramatically over-represented.

Of the 1,033 faith-based institutions reported to the Commission, 68% were Catholic. Even when state-run and private sites are included, the figure is 41%.

The Commissioners report that they want to “find out why there have been a significant number of perpetrators in certain institutions". Given the extent to which our Government has handed over responsibility for publicly-funded education, health and social welfare services to the Catholic Church, so should we all.

This is not a matter of Catholic bashing but of civic responsibility. There is no question that Catholic schools and welfare institutions are now essentially shaped by professional and secular values, but this is still not uniformly the case. Grappling with the Church’s self-evident problem cannot be an in-house chat.

What is distinctive about the Catholic Church that might have fostered child abuse? The grim stories coming out of Ireland and other countries have meant this question has been part of the Western conversation for more than a decade. Compulsory celibacy, the priestly pedestal, and a cloistered culture have all been widely discussed, but what has received much less attention to date is the Church’s core ideology of childhood.

The doctrine of original sin

Despite the doubts of many (including possibly the current Pope), the Catholic Church still affirms the doctrine of original sin.

Unlike the Jews or Orthodox Christians, for more than 1,500 years the Roman Church has maintained that the sin of Adam was passed on as an unfortunate inheritance to every subsequent human being.

This meant that every baby was born guilty and bad, with its inherent human nature irrevocably corrupted and attracted to sin. This was not a marginal teaching but underpinned the distinctive brand of Christianity built out of the ruins of the Roman Empire.

The creation story was the spiritual foundation on which the Western world was made, directing how people understood the divine, each other, the natural world and, above all, themselves.

Protestants share this spiritual inheritance – indeed renewing the purity of original sin was at the heart of the Reformation – but in the past two centuries have gradually moved away from admitting this as the doctrine became increasingly difficult to sell in a religious free market.

In recent decades, Catholic theologians have also tried to reinterpret the dogma in creative ways, but they are still not allowed to renounce it altogether. For good reason, the Vatican maintains that original sin is indispensable to the Church’s claim to hold a monopoly over salvation.

If everyone is not inherently guilty and bad, why does everyone need to be saved? Why else does every baby need to be forgiven for their sins through a Catholic baptism?

Original sin and the Royal Commission

Is there a relationship between the doctrine of original sin and child abuse? Could the idea that every person, small child and revered priest alike, was innately a sinner, have fostered self-justification, false forgiveness and institutional cover-ups?

It is likely that belief in original sin promoted the organisational culture of ignoring abuse and protecting abusers which seems to have been particularly characteristic of Catholic communities. Because both the victim and perpetrator were already sinners, and inclined to sin by their very nature, there could be a perverse tolerance of what had occurred.

Paradoxically it was the obsessive focus on sin (especially sexual sin) and the ready availability of forgiveness, which could downgrade the enormity of what had occurred. As Tony Coady has previously noted on The Conversation:

It is as if the belief that all sexual activity is somehow tainted makes the egregious destruction of childhood innocence just another failing to be expected.

Echoes of such thinking continue in some of the recent responses by the Church leadership to the crisis.

The element of original sin theology which has received most attention is how the doctrine justified attempts to beat depravity out of children though harsh discipline. Survivors frequently recall how they were told they were being punished for the sake of their eternal salvation.

There is little doubt that seeing the child as innately depraved legitimated sadistic bashings and abusive punishments which in turn probably fostered paedophilia.

The complexity of this issue is highlighted, however, by the fact that the harsh discipline was equally a perverse product of modernity. It was when the modern liberal confidence that human nature could be changed was overlaid on to the idea that the child was inherently a sinful being that attempts to “improve” the child really took off.

The older understanding of original sin did proclaim human frailty, but it also taught that there was very little that could be done about it. Salvation from human nature could be achieved in the next life but not in this. There was wisdom in this acceptance of human limitation and weakness, as some progressive clerics have recently pointed out.

But until the Church fully faces how its view of the child came to be so perverted and wholly reforms its institutional structures and culture, its priests should not be surprised if the Commission and the community see every reference to original sin as just another theological excuse for cruelty and crime.


James Boyce is the author of Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World, published by Black Inc.

James Boyce is the author of Born Bad: Original Sin and the Making of the Western World.

Asylum seekers and the dignity of work

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:18
Less than welcoming... policies that prevent asylum seekers working are dehumanising.AAP Image/Newzulu/Zebedee Parkes

My interview with Mr Syed did not get off to a great start. We’d arranged to meet at the Dandenong library – part of the city council building, a huge, bright orange edifice in the redeveloped heart of Dandenong in Melbourne’s southeast.

I was early and kept a close watch on the library’s sliding doors as rain showers blew across the civic plaza outside. Various men who might conceivably have been asylum seekers from the subcontinent came and went but none of them proved to be Mr Syed.

Just as I was about to call him, Mr Syed sent me a text. “I’m waiting at Dandenong library,” it read. “But it has moved from here and closed.”

The new library, I belatedly discovered, had only just opened. Mr Syed was familiar with the old one, near the market where he does his shopping. I eventually found him about fifteen minutes later. I felt bad about a misunderstanding that had caused him to wait so long in the cold, but perhaps it made it a little easier for us to start talking.

Rather than sit down immediately – two strangers across a table discussing painful and personal issues – we took advantage of a break in the weather to walk briskly back to the new library to retrieve the umbrella that I had left behind there. (It was only a $2-shop job and I might not have bothered, but Mr Syed insisted. It was a measure of our different circumstances.)

We talked as we walked, Mr Syed sketching the broad outlines of his life in Australia so far – arrival by boat from Indonesia in October 2012, held in a Darwin detention centre for seventy days, released into the community on a Bridging Visa E. In some ways Mr Syed is lucky. He did not get sent to detention in Manus or Nauru. In other ways, he lucked out. Like other asylum seekers who reached Australia by sea after 13 August 2012, Mr Syed’s bridging visa denies him the right to work.

By the time we meet he has spent almost eighteen months living on a government payment of about $221 per week – equivalent to 89% of the Centrelink Special Benefit. Using standard OECD measures, the Australian Council of Social Services calculates that the poverty line is $358 per week for a single adult. It says anything below this “equates to a very austere living standard”.

After paying rent in a house shared with up to eight people, Mr Syed is left with less than $20 per day to cover all his other expenses. Somehow he manages to make the money stretch, to keep himself fed and clothed. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) has found that some asylum seekers on bridging visas in Australia get by on one meal a day, and will go without food in order to buy phone credit so they can keep in touch with family overseas. Mr Syed can supplement his income with vouchers and donations from charities like the Salvation Army, he even manages to set aside some money to send home to his wife and children. Living below the poverty line is very difficult, but it is not his biggest concern.

The more important issue for Mr Syed is that he is denied the right to contribute. He is a man with a strong work ethic and a strong sense of personal responsibility. The experience of being forced to do nothing and rely on handouts is eating away at his soul. “We feel ourselves like a beggar here,” he says. “This is a poison, really a poison for the life of a person.”

No advantage

The denial of work rights to asylum seekers living in the community was part of the Gillard government’s response to the 2012 Expert Panel on Asylum Seekers chaired by General Angus Houston – even though the panel’s report made no such recommendation. What the panel did recommend was ‘the application of a “no advantage” principle to ensure that no benefit is gained through circumventing regular migration arrangements.’ According to then Immigration Minister Chris Bowen, this “underlying principle” was “the most important recommendation of the Houston Expert Panel”. Preventing asylum seekers from working was, he said, “consistent” with the “no advantage” concept.

Mr Syed is one of thousands of asylum seekers affected by this policy – although exact numbers are hard to come by. According to monthly reports on the Immigration department website, in April 2014 there were 24,273 asylum seekers living in the community on bridging visas. Consistent with the lack of transparency that has characterised the administration of Minister Scott Morrison, however, the department could not or would not tell me how many of them had work rights. The terse reply to my emailed inquiry was that the overall bridging visa statistics on the website were “all that is currently available”.

Labor Senator Kim Carr had more success in getting data when he put a question at Senate Estimates in February 2014. At that time there were 19,353 asylum seekers living in the community without work rights. (Another 3000 or so asylum seekers live in community detention, confined to a particular, designated residence. They are not allowed to work either.)

Most of them, like Mr Syed, have been in this situation for more than a year and there is no prospect of anything changing quickly given current policy settings and the immigration department’s processing backlog. As Curtin University researchers Lisa Hartley and Caroline Fleay comment in their February 2014 study Policy as Punishment:

“It is likely that asylum seekers living in the community will face months if not several years without the right to work while they wait for their refugee claims to be finalised.’

At a rough estimate, and without accounting for administrative expenses, the cost of providing 89% of the Centrelink benefit to 19,000 asylum seekers runs to more than A$4 million per week. Even if only half of them managed to find jobs, granting these asylum seekers work rights could save taxpayers more than A$100 million per year. In addition, those who did find work would be contributing to government revenue by paying taxes and would become less frequent users of other government services, including Medicare.

To deny the right to work is to deny a fundamental source of human dignity. Work contributes to a sense of self worth that is essential to well-being. It can be a vital coping mechanism, particularly for people who have suffered trauma and upheaval. That is one of the reasons why the right to work is enshrined in international treaties that Australia has ratified, including the Refugee Convention and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. To deny asylum seekers the right to work is to put their mental and physical health at risk. The human and financial costs of such a policy could be very great indeed.

Mr Peter, Mr Syed

Our conversation is polite, almost formal. He calls me Mr Peter. I call him Mr Syed, although he insists that I use his full name for this article and writes it down for me in an elegant cursive Syed Ejaz Hussain Zaidi. He is a dignified man, educated and softly spoken, but I sense that Mr Syed is under extreme pressure and at times he struggles to maintain his composure. As we sit drinking coffee he explains why he made the difficult decision to come to Australia, leaving behind his wife and five children, aged between four and eighteen. ‘I don’t know whether I did right or wrong,’ he worries. ‘Was it a correct decision or a silly mistake?’

Mr Syed is from Quetta, the capital of Pakistan’s Balochistan province that borders Iran and Afghanistan. He is a member of the minority Hazara community, Shia Muslims in a predominantly Sunni country. “I had a good life in my city,” he says. “I earned a good salary and had a small business on the side. I was such a successful person there.”

Mr Syed worked in the regional office of a Pakistan government department. He was the only Hazara amongst the staff in his section. When five strangers came asking for him in August 2012, but refusing to say what they wanted, Mr Syed’s colleagues were alarmed. They rang him and warned him not to come to work. After receiving death threats by phone and text, Mr Syed went into hiding and then fled the country. I ask why he chose to seek haven in Australia, rather than some other place.

“Because it was easier and cheaper than Europe,” he says. “At that time Australia was a leading country, welcoming refugees and giving them shelter. I was thinking about the future of my children and thinking about the future of my own life.” At that time too, record numbers of asylum seekers were reaching Australia by boat and the Gillard government was desperately casting around for ways to deter them. Mr Syed hopes his family can keep themselves relatively safe in Quetta secluded in the predominantly Hazara suburb where they live. To travel outside that enclave is to take a grave risk. This is consistent with independent reports on the situation in the city. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan says the city’s Hazaras “have retreated to just a couple of localities in Quetta to avoid being targeted”.

Amnesty International says “routine targeted killings” are part of “a long line of brazen attacks against Quetta’s Shia population”. In two incidents in September 2012, shortly after Mr Syed stopped going to his office, men armed with rocket launchers and Kalashnikovs halted buses, hauled off all the Hazara men on board, and killed them. (Hazaras are generally easily identified by their East Asian appearance.) On at least two occasions, university buses carrying Hazara students to their studies have been targeted for bomb attacks.

The Sunni extremist group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi often openly admits its role in the violence and has issued public warnings to Hazara Shias to leave Quetta or be killed:

“It is our religious duty to kill all Shias, and to cleanse Pakistan of this impure nation… in all of Pakistan, especially Quetta, we will continue our successful jihad against the Shia Hazara and Pakistan will become a graveyard for them.”

Despite such evidence, Lashkar-e-Jhangvi appears to operate with impunity. In January 2013 a double bombing in Quetta killed almost a hundred people, mostly Hazaras. In protest at authorities’ failure to protect them, the community refused to bury their dead. In sub-zero temperatures they staged athree-day sit-in beside the bodies of their loved ones.

In the face of such atrocities, it is hardly surprising that Hazaras in Quetta might be drawn to the promises made by smugglers, or that the danger of trying to reach Australia by boat may seem like a risk worth taking. In 2010, a suicide bomber killed more than 70 people at a Shia Muslim rally in Quetta. In news photographs of the aftermath, a large billboard warning against travelling to Australia by boat is clearly visible in the background.

A generous community

A couple of years ago I worked on a research project mapping the spatial distribution of inequality in Australian cities over time. In our coloured maps of Melbourne, Dandenong consistently showed up us one of the darkest or lightest shaded areas, revealing high levels of disadvantage. At the 2011 Census, the unemployment rate was 3.3% higher than the national average and median household weekly incomes $281 lower. Dandenong had a higher than average proportion of single parent families and lower than average levels of educational achievement. Looking back across five census periods, the same patterns appeared. Disadvantage in Dandenong appears to be entrenched and persistent. On paper it is not the kind of place that you would expect to cope particularly well with an influx of thousands of asylum seekers who have no choice but to live in poverty and to rely on welfare and the goodwill of strangers because government rules have forced them into unemployment.

Yet by and large, the local community has responded with generosity. There are thought to be around three thousand asylum seekers on bridging visas living in and around the Dandenong area. The largest groups are Hazaras from Afghanistan and Pakistan, Tamils from Sri Lanka, and Iranians, although there are many people from other backgrounds as well. “Considering the number of clients here, there have not been many issues,” one local service provider tells me.

Perhaps it is because the people of Dandenong are not fazed by difference and know what it means to try to rebuild a life in a new land. According to the last census, fewer than four in ten Dandenong residents were born in Australia, compared to an average of close to seven in ten for the Australian population overall. More than 60% of households in Dandenong speak two or more languages at home, compared to only 20% nationally.

The federal government funds organisations like AMES and the Red Cross to provide transitional services to asylum seekers on bridging visas after their release from detention, including initial accommodation assistance and a limited number of English language classes (usually three two-hour classes per week). The funding for these services runs out after six weeks, however, long before clients’ basic needs are met. While funding may be extended for asylum seekers who are assessed as particularly vulnerable (due to factors such as age, health or trauma), in reality agency case workers continue to offer support to all comers for as long as it is needed, which could be months or even years.

Case workers stretch themselves to cover the gap in resources and call on volunteers to help out with such things as English tutoring or donations of essential goods like clothing or prams or fridges. AMES and the Red Cross also refer asylum seekers to local charities like the Salvation Army or the St Vincent de Paul Society and work with other community groups to develop free activities. Around Dandenong there are regular cricket or soccer matches, bicycle maintenance workshops, sewing groups, cooking classes, gym access and swimming lessons on offer to asylum seekers. I hear about one man – “a shy, normal Aussie bloke” – who takes two asylum seekers to a game at Docklands Stadium each week to introduce them to the delights of AFL.

The work with asylum seekers in Dandenong goes well beyond the not-for-profit sector to involve local government, local businesses, the police and ordinary citizens. I’m told that local schools “bend over backwards” to help integrate the children of asylum seekers into classrooms; that the library is very welcoming; that real estate agents – often themselves of migrant or refugee background – can be very generous in finding rental accommodation, despite the fact that asylum seekers have no rental history and no credit history.

In a relatively disadvantaged area like Dandenong, this puts additional strain on already scarce resources. Despite the best efforts of many local agencies and individuals, there are problems.

In an assessment of the gaps in Australia’s protection system, the UNHCR found that asylum seekers in the community often struggle to find accommodation because they are seen as high risk: agents looking to set up long term lease agreements are reluctant to sign tenants on short term visas. Some landlords around Dandenong are exploiting the situation by crowding asylum seekers in together and charging rent per head, rather than rent for a property as a whole. Charging six people individual rents can double the return on a three-bedroom house that would normally let at $300 per week.

Asylum seekers on bridging visas are competing for a limited range of houses at the lower end of the rental market. In a report on its emergency relief program, Uniting Care notes that asylum seekers often end up in low-quality accommodation with inefficient heating and hot water systems and poorly maintained plumbing. As a result, they can find themselves in financial difficulties when they are hit with unexpectedly high water and electricity bills.

The UNHCR also reports of asylum seekers working, despite the restriction on their visas, and getting exploited as a result of their vulnerability: ‘not being paid, working long hours for a meager wage and having no recourse to remedy these experiences due to fear of being found out.’

Local community workers know this kind of exploitation goes on in Dandenong, but as one person put it to me, “there is stuff-all we can do about it or will do about it.” As another said, “you can’t tell someone to quit a job paying $10 an hour.” To report the situation would be to put asylum seekers at risk of being sent back to detention, potentially on Nauru or Manus, for working in breach of their visa conditions. A job, even a badly paid job, not only helps asylum seekers put food on the table and pay the rent, it also keeps them occupied, gives them something to do, helps them to stop thinking.

Overall though, the view I hear repeatedly in Dandenong is that the community response to asylum seekers has been remarkable.

As the resident of a more affluent part of Melbourne, Rosa Misitano admits that she had some stereotypical views of Dandenong before she came to work in the suburb. Now she holds the area in very high regard. “It is very, very welcoming,” she says. “I often get to see the nice side of humanity.”

Six years ago, dissatisfied with her career in the mining industry, Misitano went back to study, completing a Masters of Education and a Graduate Certificate to qualify as a careers adviser. In the process of retraining she discovered volunteering and an absolute passion to help others to be their best. “I can use my business experience to do that,” she says.

Misitano has been the manager of the Dandenong branch of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre since it opened in September 2013. The Centre operates from Monday to Wednesday out of a two-storey shopfront on the main street and is financed entirely by donations. A team of 35 volunteers provide employment services and eighteen two-hour English language classes per week. When I visit in mid April, the teacher of the more advanced group is sharing a recipe for Anzac biscuits.

The Centre has considerable success in finding jobs for those asylum seekers who do have work rights, despite their diverse backgrounds. “We’ve had prawn farmers, archaeologists, metallurgists and teachers,” says Misitano. The Centre helps asylum seekers with basic skills, including CV writing; provides some occupational health and safety training and offers instruction on Australian workplace culture, such as advice about making eye contact, or about how to respond to an invitation to Friday night drinks if you do not drink alcohol.

Expectations on the participants are high. “We’re tough,” says Misitano. “They have to apply for 20 jobs per week. They have to get into the habits that they will need in the workforce.” The Centre has helped asylum seekers get jobs at many different businesses including a fertiliser factory, a rose farm and a Toyota dealership.

Misitano sees how work can change lives. She tells the story of a young Afghan asylum seeker who insisted on treating her to coffee and cake after getting his first pay. The young man had been distraught when he first came to the Centre, because he felt that he had to lie about his circumstances when he spoke to his mother on the phone. Now, for the first time in months, he was comfortable calling home, because he knew would soon be able to send money back to his family. Misitano is upset, however, that she can’t do more to ease the distress of asylum seekers without work rights. “They come to me and say: I need something to do. It gets dark. It gets me sad,” she says.

Staff I speak to at other community services in Dandenong echo this view. (Some prefer not to give their names because they work for organisations in receipt of government funding.) “They’re in limbo, they can’t move on in life,” says one. “It’s a mental health issue and their physical health deteriorates as a result. Over time we’re seeing many more incidents of self harming.”

“Would granting work rights make a difference?” I ask. “It would make a massive difference,” comes the answer.

Evidence gathered by the UNHCR reveals that many asylum seekers find it “shameful and demoralising” to rely on handouts rather than working. Denial of work rights prevents them having meaningful engagement with the community and adds to a sense of hopelessness and social isolation. The prolonged lack of purpose can be “devastating for drive, meaning, purpose and mental health”.

Roslyn Leary is the local manager of the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture – more commonly known as Foundation House – which provides support to people who have been subjected to torture and trauma. In the current circumstances, she says, the agency has had to re-think the way it works with asylum seekers. “The basis of trauma work is that a person has to feel safe,” she says. “With asylum seekers who fear deportation, who fear being put back into detention, who cannot work and establish a new life, the principles of trauma work have been pulled out from under us.”

Leary describes much of the work with asylum seekers as “symptom reduction” – attempting to alleviate high levels of anxiety, depression and suicidal ideation. “Sometimes it feels as if we have had another good day at work because nobody has killed themselves,” she says.

Leary has spent time on the frontline of the global refugee crisis, working as a refugee determination officer with the UNHCR in Egypt, deciding about who will and who will not be granted the agency’s protection. Despite the much greater resources and support available to asylum seekers in Australia, in some respects, she says – particularly the denial of work rights – the situation for them here is worse.

“In Egypt, asylum seekers were not supposed to work either,” she says. “But there is a big black market economy. Many could at least find some sort of job and feel like they are functioning as a human being. That aids people’s sense of dignity.” Here the lack of meaningful activity means “endless days, boredom, frustration and anger”. Many asylum seekers have already spent a long time in transit countries or in detention centres. With nothing to do, they can’t help but think about those wasted years. “It has an extremely damaging impact on people’s sense of self,” says Leary.

‘We are in depression’

When I ask Mr Syed how he spends his days, he replies, “I am walking around the streets like a mad person. We have no access to the social benefit of life. We do not have anything to do. We are in depression.”

For a brief period, Mr Syed volunteered gift-wrapping Christmas presents at Myer, with customers donating money to charity in return for the service. About 50 asylum seekers took part in a project that raised almost $70,000 for Vision Australia. Mr Syed says it helped to be busy. “It has a good psychological effect on you.”

Asylum seekers show great interest in volunteering and in April 2014 an audit by AMES concluded that as many as four hundred asylum seekers in Melbourne had volunteered in some capacity in the previous 12 months. Organising such opportunities is far from straightforward, however. Language can be a barrier, as can police checks or working with children certificates. And the federal government has put strict but opaque rules in place, limiting volunteering to not-for-profit or local government organisations that already have a volunteer program and to activities that will “benefit the community”. Asylum seekers are not to receive any cash or in kind benefits in return for their time and cannot be engaged in any activity that might “otherwise be undertaken in return for wages by Australian resident”.

Nor can asylum seekers study – unless of course they can afford the full, up-front fees that are charged to international students.

“We are keen to work,” says Mr Syed. “We want to be part of the society. We want to contribute our services. We don’t want to be a burden.” He is completely mystified as to why the government would give him money and refuse to let him pay his own way. “Why are they doing this?” he asks me. I explain about the perception that asylum seekers are economic migrants rather than refugees, drawn to Australia by the attraction of better jobs at higher wages.

“I did not come here for financial benefit,” he insists. “I came here to get a secure life for my family.” I say that perhaps there is another reason too, that the government is probably hoping that Mr Syed and other asylum seekers will give up and go home.

Roslyn Leary from Foundation House puts it this way: “The message from the government is very clear: because you came ‘illegally’ you cannot participate in any way in our community. The overall intention is to drive people out, to get them to give up and go home.” Leary says some people are returning: “People who feel they have to go back to see family, even if they die.”

Returning to Quetta is an option that must have crossed Mr Syed’s mind: “I can’t tell you how my children are getting upset mentally. Every time I speak to them on Skype they ask me ‘when will we be with you?’ What should I answer? I can only say, it is only God who knows. I am reaching the stage when I cannot face my family any more.”

After more than eighteen months in Australia, immigration department officials have not yet interviewed Mr Syed about his application for a protection visa. His original six-month bridging visa expired long ago and has not yet been renewed, rendering him technically unlawful. According to information provided to Senate Estimates, in February 2014 Mr Syed was one of almost 12,000 asylum seekers in the community whose bridging visas had “ceased”. For some (though not Mr Syed) this has created serious difficulties in accessing health services, because without a valid visa they were unable to renew their Medicare cards.

The department had suspended bridging visa renewals “pending finalisation of legislative and administrative arrangements” for Minister Scott Morrison’s Code of Behaviour. Now the code is in place, asylum seekers must undertake not to “engage in any antisocial or disruptive activities that are inconsiderate, disrespectful or threaten the peaceful enjoyment of other members of the community” in order to renew their visa. The Minister insists that the code is necessary to “protect” the Australian community. Asylum seekers who breach it risk detention on Manus or Nauru.

When Mr Syed does eventually get to argue his case for protection, he may have to do so without professional advice because the federal government has withdrawn funding for legal assistance for asylum seekers. Mr Syed knows that if he is recognised as a refugee, he is only likely to be granted a three-year “humanitarian concern” visa, a reincarnation of the temporary protection visas introduced by John Howard. The Senate has twice disallowed the reintroduction of temporary protection visas, but the Immigration Minister is determined to bring them back.

If Mr Syed were to go home to Quetta, despite the risks he faces there, the government would mark him down as a voluntary return. In reality, he would have been forced into that decision by the denial of any other option. “I would prefer to live in hell with my family than to live in heaven without them,” he says. “I do not want to die alone. I want to die with my family.”

Mr Syed puts his head in his hands. Rubs his eyes. I look away and stare through the window at the rain outside.

Recently I witnessed Julie Bishop giving a leadership talk to a group of undergraduates. When one of the students asked what was the biggest challenge facing the world today, the Foreign Minister nominated “constraints on freedom” and “the movement away from democracy” in many parts of the world. She gave the example of Syria as a place where people lack freedom of choice, freedom of speech and the freedom to make decisions for themselves.

It was not my place to ask a question at the gathering but I was silently hoping the students would ask about many of the asylum seekers locked up on Manus or Nauru or Christmas Island: individuals, who, denied freedom in Syria or other similarly troubled places, had exercised what little choice was available to them to seek a better life for themselves and their families.

When the Minister went on to say that she had joined the Liberal Party because it champions self-reliance, reward for effort and hard work, my thoughts turned immediately to Mr Syed, a man who desperately desires to be self-reliant but is denied the right to be so; a man who would work hard at any job, no matter if the reward for his effort was small; a man who came to Australia to try to free his family from the kind of persecution that Julie Bishop abhors.

None of the students asked about the treatment of asylum seekers. If they had, she would no doubt have defended government policy on the basis of preventing the horror of deaths at sea, or by trumping the individual rights she had just championed with another set of rights, based on sovereignty and the democratically expressed desire of the Australian people for the government to control our borders.

Even if we grant the point that there are conflicting sets of ethical concerns at play in the asylum seeker issue, even if we were to go so far as to acknowledge that there may have been a case for using deterrence to “stop the boats” to save lives at sea, the soul-destroying treatment of Mr Syed and other asylum seekers and refugees can no longer be justified. No asylum seekers have made it to Australia by sea since December 2013. The Abbott government’s strategy of naval interception and of forcing people back to Indonesia in unsinkable, nausea-inducing orange lifeboats has proved to be an effective blockade. As long as the smugglers cannot reach Australia, they have no service to sell to asylum seekers in Indonesia.

As Robert Manne has argued, this gives us an opportunity to help ‘save the lives of the tens of thousands of asylum seekers’ who are already Australia’s responsibility. There is no longer any reason to ‘send a message’ to potential boat people waiting in Indonesia or elsewhere by denying work rights or family reunion to people who arrived before that naval barrier was put in place.

There is no point in extending the suffering of those detained in Manus or Nauru or Christmas Island. Regardless of whether or not it was ever morally justifiable to damage the wellbeing of one group of asylum seekers in order to deter another group from making a similar journey – to use people as means, rather than treat them as ends – there is no longer any point to such punishment. It is just unconscionable cruelty.

Peter Mare’s essay will be published in Griffith REVIEW: The Way We Work, available from August.

Peter Mares is contributing editor with the online journal Inside Story, adjunct fellow at the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University and a moderator with the Cranlana Programme.

Little hard data in the hard area of foreign investment

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:18
We must address patchy data collection to get an accurate picture of foreign property investment.ABS

A large portion of commentary on foreign investment in Australia is based on scant data, as recent submissions to the inquiry into foreign investment in residential property show.

At the moment it seems the only body collecting any data on this sensitive issue is the Foreign Investment Review Board, and that appears limited. Even the Australian Bureau of Statistics and Reserve Bank admitted to the O'Dwyer inquiry its staff rely on trade magazines and newspapers to identify foreign real estate purchases.

The concept of foreign investment

In economics investment means the flow of additions (positive or negative) to a stock of assets, or store of value, over time in the economy. Investment is important because it contributes to the productive capacity of the economy. Residential property investment increases the flow of services from housing.

The term foreign investment is very often loosely used. It includes additions to assets by foreigners, such as internally financed additions or improvement to the assets, or externally through the purchase of new equity. But it also may include transfer of ownership of existing assets from local to foreign, such as through purchase of existing equity. By itself this would leave the stock of assets unchanged.

Prices in transactions are subject to supply and demand. They can vary from increases or improvements to production, through to speculation as in the lead up to the global financial crisis. This is another reason why the measurement of foreign investment may not be able to easily distinguish between additions to assets and the exchange of existing assets. Moreover the foreign exchange transactions which may be used to identify foreign investment do not record the reasons for the transaction.

Many foreign investment transactions involve selling and buying by entities which are themselves a mixture of domestic and foreign ownership. The IMF has rules about the how to categorise the various levels of foreign ownership involved in the transactions. “Direct investment” is that where a resident in one economy has control or a significant degree of influence directly or indirectly in the management of an enterprise resident in another economy. A rule of thumb is more than 10% of the worth of the entity is involved in the transaction.

Data collection needs resources

As in the case of any data, the quality of foreign investment data is only as good as the amount of resources devoted to the collection, and that has been determined historically. There are primarily two sources of data for foreign investment in Australia, the FIRB and the ABS.

The state titles and transfers offices do not record the nationality of parties in property transfers. The addition to cost for improving data collection needs to be weighed up against the benefits of the additional information gained from that data. For national data, this is invariably a political question, not only in determining the total funding or addition for data collection, but also within that the allocation to each area, as indicated in the ABS submission.

The Treasury budget documentation provides no plan to increase ABS resources, nor is the purpose of expenditure identified (except for the Census).

Property as a special category of foreign investment

The difficulties of recording foreign investment data are widespread - Australia is one of the few countries that produce data of any sort on foreign ownership of land.

In the case of real estate, the stock of assets includes land (and improvements), buildings and other constructed physical structures. A problem for measurement of property as foreign or domestically owned arises because the land itself has to stay on Australia’s national balance sheet as an asset even though it may have a foreign owner. This involves separate valuation of the land. Otherwise the land would appear in the balance sheets as an asset of another country.

The ABS data on real estate cannot be split between foreign and local ownership, nor between commercial and residential. The ABS includes foreign investment in property in purchases of Australian equity in “other business services” which includes legal, accounting, marketing, computing and scientific services, amounting to about A$33 billion in 2013. The data is obtained by survey of the businesses involved.

FIRB data is collected for a different purpose

The ABS also makes use of data from the FIRB on investment intentions by foreign investors outside the Australian corporate structure, estimated at a value of A$24 billion for 2013. The FIRB data are based on applications it receives. It would only include the value of foreign investments where the amounts are greater than the threshold requirement for applications, currently A$248 million for business investment from most other countries. Lower or zero thresholds apply for real estate or for government investors. It is not clear how repeat and unsuccessful applications are accounted for.

Emigrating Australians increase foreign investment assets - by another A$48 billion. Overall foreign holdings of Australian real estate appear to add about 3% to total foreign investment. The RBA estimates that foreign investment is at most 5-10% of dwelling turnover value and half that in volume because the investment is in higher value houses. This leaves the likely proportion of total housing stock which is foreign owned unknown but likely to be very small.

What is needed?

The ABS recommends that if comprehensive data on foreign investment in real estate is a priority, the FIRB and the state offices for transfers and titles could be required to collect the data. The data required, according to the ABS, would include:

  • the market value of property transacted
  • settlement date
  • residency of investor
  • Australian residency status of purchaser
  • seller residency, and
  • whether purchaser is a corporation or individual.

Whether the foreign investor is a government could be added to the list. While the ABS proposal would need to be costed and the political will to be implemented, it appears to be a sensible suggestion to improve the data in this area.

Margaret McKenzie does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Take your marks ... the science behind the perfect swimming dive

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:18
Australia's Cate Campbell transitioning from the on-block phase to the flight phase of a swimming start.EPA/Juanjo Martin

The swimming events of the Glasgow Commonwealth Games are among the first on the schedule. Australia and the UK tend to do quite well in the swimming events – as does Canada – so it’s an excellent opportunity to learn a little about the all-important swimming dive start while watching our swimmers compete.

The swimming dive start is highly linked to overall performance during competition. In fact, the start can contribute anywhere between 0.8-26.1% of total race time, depending on race distance.

Obviously, it’s important that elite swimmers get their dive down pat.

The swimming dive start is defined as the time from the starting signal (the gun or beep) to when the centre of the swimmer’s head reaches 15m down the pool. Elite swimmers can typically perform a start between 5.5 and 8s.

The swimming start is broken into three phases:

  1. on-block
  2. flight
  3. underwater.

The average percentage contribution for each phase of the start for elite swimmers is 11% (0.74s) spent in the on-block phase, 5% (0.30s) in the flight phase, 56% (3.69s) in the underwater phase and 28% (1.81s) free swimming.

On-block phase: The time from the start signal to when the swimmer’s toe leaves the block.

Jessicah Schipper and Stephanie Rice in the on-block phase. EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Flight phase: The time from when the swimmer’s toe leaves the block to when the swimmer enters the water.

Eamon Sullivan in a flight phase. AAP/Tertius Pickard

Underwater phase: The time from when the swimmer enters the water to when the swimmer’s head breaks the surface of the water.

James Magnussen in an underwater phase. EPA/Patrick B Kraemer

The underwater phase is the longest of a swimming start – it can account for 95% of variance in start time – and is the most decisive in determining efficient overall start performance, because it is when the swimmer is travelling at their fastest through the water.

So what makes the perfect dive?

It is important to remember the fastest starter is not always the one that enters the water first. The fastest starts are the ones that can maintain the highest velocity for the longest after they enter the water.

Prior to hitting the water, a swimmer must learn to maximise their take-off horizontal velocity while also reducing their reaction time, but if a swimmer does not optimise the underwater phase, increasing their take-off horizontal velocity won’t be advantageous to start performance.

There are a number of factors that affect the swimmer after they enter the water which determine how much velocity is maintained during the underwater phase and, in turn, the overall outcome of the start. These include:

  • being as streamlined as possible
  • starting underwater undulatory swimming (dolphin kick) after about 6m
  • generating propulsive kick using only the feet and legs during the underwater water kick phase.

The swimmer can also vary the depth at which they swim, although this will affect the amount of drag acting on the swimmer and can affect the trajectory of the underwater phase. Specifically, the timing of a swimmer’s first kick, their maximum depth and the underwater trajectory used will have the greatest influence on overall start performance.

If a swimmer’s maximum depth is too deep they will spend longer travelling up toward the surface, and if the swimmer’s maximum depth is too shallow they will experience higher drag forces acting on them.

Similarly, beginning the first kick too early will increase the amount of drag acting on the swimmer.

The ideal underwater trajectory

Elaine Tor

Through a number of research studies a number of theoretical guidelines for the ideal underwater trajectory have been detailed in the figure above, but the optimal underwater trajectory will also depend on each individual swimmers' anthropometric characteristics and underwater kicking ability.

By using these recommendations swimmers are able to adopt the ideal underwater trajectory that will reduce the amount of resistance acting in the opposite direction to slow the swimmer down.

As a result they will be able to maintain a higher velocity for longer and set themselves up for better start performances.

Elaine Tor receives funding from Swimming Australia and the Australian Institute of Sport. She is affiliated with the Australian Institute of Sport.

Early missteps show Abbott needs a plan B to deal with the Senate

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:18
The government has manoeuvred itself into a position where its bluster has made it vulnerable to Clive Palmer's bluster in the Senate.AAP/Lukas Coch

Last week, television news presented grabs of former prime minister John Howard arriving in Canberra. It is unknown if Howard was there to share his wisdom with Coalition MPs on how to deal with minor parties controlling the balance of power in the Senate. If he was, it would demonstrate a lack of corporate memory in the Coalition government of how to deal with this situation.

Having to seek advice from Howard would fly in the face of Tony Abbott’s election promise of a team of experienced ministers from the Howard era: Christopher Pyne, Joe Hockey, Warren Truss, Malcolm Turnbull, Julie Bishop, Eric Abetz and Abbott himself. But lessons on how to deal with the upper house have been hard learned by some governments – even by Howard in his first term.

Ever since Labor introduced proportional voting for electing the Senate in 1948, the government of the day has rarely controlled the upper house. Since the Democratic Labor Party’s (DLP) arrival in the 1950s a variety of minor parties and independents have found it easy to gain the lower thresholds of votes to get into the Senate, especially after further reforms under Labor prime minister Bob Hawke.

As a result, the experience of prime ministers Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s and John Howard after 2004 were throwbacks to the first half of the century when governments faced overwhelming support or overwhelming opposition in the Senate.

What the 1948 change did was to accentuate the natural inclination of federal parliament. Australia has two chambers of almost equal powers. The only difference is that the Senate cannot initiate or amend “money bills”.

In effect, Australia’s political system is a recipe for both conflict and co-operation. And it is necessary for any political leader to judge the uses and limits of both aspects.

In that respect, we can expect – but should not take too seriously – parties to spout while in government about their electoral mandate to get policies through, after rightly declaring in opposition their scepticism of the concept – which this government has done on both counts.

As prime minister, John Gorton did it ‘his way’ and was reluctant to deal with a hostile Senate. NAA

The complexities were lost on John Gorton, who was prime minister between 1968 and 1971. Gorton’s way of dealing with people was summarised by a newspaper with a song by Frank Sinatra – My Way. As Gorton notably said:

I am always prepared to recognise that there can be two points of view – mine and one that is probably wrong.

As such, Gorton sometimes attacked or refused to negotiate with the DLP, upon which his government depended for passage of legislation.

Gorton was brought down by Fraser, who proved not much better at dealing with a minor party when he became prime minister. Admittedly, the Democrats formed from breakaways of the Liberal Party and were led by former Liberal minister Don Chipp, who labelled Fraser, Labor’s Gough Whitlam and their parties bastards who needed to be kept honest. Still, Fraser tried to ignore the political upstart.

This changed with the Hawke government. It decided to work with the Democrats, who used the balance of power where they could – that is, only when the Liberal and National parties were opposed – to modify ALP legislation.

Meanwhile, antagonism towards the Democrats seeped through the Coalition souls, leaving them convinced that the Democrats were a pro-ALP or even radically left party. Adversarial rage prevented any appreciation of their small-l Liberal origins or the shift of the political spectrum to the right during the 1980s and 1990s.

When the Coalition returned to government in 1996, its mind was generally set on ideological incompatibility with the Democrats. Although Peter Reith negotiated changes to industrial relations with Democrats leader Cheryl Kernot, there was a reversion to type. Like Fraser, Howard tried to ignore them for the sake of dealing with Tasmanian independent Brian Harradine and Labor turncoat Mal Colston. Howard was more ideologically comfortable with Harradine’s social conservatism than with the Democrats.

John Howard was forced to deal with Senate Democrats over the GST. AAP/Alan Porritt

The comfort was not to last. After the 1998 election, Howard and treasurer Peter Costello didn’t even consult the Democrats about the GST upon which they had staked their campaign. There was no Coalition plan for concurrent negotiations with different players. There was no plan B when Harradine said no to the GST.

The government was completely unprepared, even though it knew the Democrats had the balance of power from July 1999. Howard and Costello backflipped. They suddenly found the Democrats a delight to work with.

Abbott and current-day treasurer Joe Hockey knew PUP and others would have the balance of power in the Senate from July 2014 but also made no preparations. As crossbench senator Ricky Muir’s senior adviser Glenn Druery said:

Not a single minister, not a single member of the government, has come and knocked on the door and offered to buy us a coffee or have a chat. It should have begun weeks ago. If I could give the government some gentle advice I would say they need a little more empathy with those they have to deal with.

As the debacles of the last two weeks have shown, Druery’s comments were not simply self-serving.

Last October, I posited belligerence as a style of this government which can leave:

… voters with perceptions of ridiculous stubbornness or humiliating backdown.

With belligerence goes bluster, particularly with the range of promises at the election that could not be met or were contradicted by the budget; with the failure to recognise the limits with the Senate; but also in the refusal to countenance the public backlash.

Since last year, the government has manoeuvred itself into this position where its bluster has made it vulnerable to Clive Palmer’s bluster. Bluster has begotten bluster.

Mark Rolfe does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Investing in space: what the UK Space Agency can teach Australia

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:18
Soaring above Western Australia: we need a new approach to get more of a share in the global space industry.Flickr/NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, CC BY-NC

Australia has had an active civil space program since 1947 but has much to learn if it is to capture a bigger share of growing billion dollar global space industry.

The potential size and scope of the Australian space sector compares well against several other space nations, notably the United Kingdom and Canada. But both those nations have more effective space sectors that are centrally administered by a single government body, whereas Australia space activities are not strategically managed by a central entity.

In particular the UK has recently adopted an agency approach to managing civil space activities, after decades of committee administration. There are lessons for Australia in the approach that the UK took in creating its agency.

Australia’s space exploits

Australian civil space activities are currently overseen by the Department of Industry’s Space Coordination Office (SCO), which last year replaced the Space Policy Unit. The SCO is tasked with coordinating all of Australia’s national and international civil space activities.

Working in conjunction with the SCO is the Space Licensing and Safety Office (SLASO) which implements regulatory and safety regimes for space activities within Australia or involving Australian contributions in international programs.

The SCO drafted the Satellite Utilisation Policy, Australia’s most recent space-focused government policy. Its original intent was to develop a policy that will:

[…] articulate a comprehensive national space strategy and facilitate better coordination of space activities across Government.

But the realised policy falls short of being a space policy, as it considers only the use of space-derived data in the Australian context.

It does however highlight Australia’s dependency on internationally provided space data (for weather forecasting, land management and position and navigation services).

It also hints at Australia’s vulnerability in securing the continuation of these services, as most are provided free through time-limited international agreements.

These government bodies exist to facilitate the activities in space of outside parties. They do not initiate or manage space programs in their own right, and have no capacity to sponsor such programs.

Our failings in space

Australia’s approach to space activities is passive and regulatory. It does nothing to create or grow them to take advantage of new opportunities.

In fact, this passive strategy may even put off Australian efforts to keep up with international competition.

There are two basic areas of the space sector where Australia is failing:

  1. strategic oversight and development of nationally important space services
  2. strategic investment to exploit a growing multi-billion dollar space market

To support the first, Australia needs a space agency, and for the second it needs a space program. To see how this might be implemented, the recent UK experience provides a good case study.

Lessons from the UK

Prior to 2010, the British National Space Centre (BNSC) was responsible for coordinating the UK’s civil space activities, serving a similar role to Australia’s SCO.

Towards the end of its life the BNSC was beginning to show several failings in approach and operation. Notably it lacked a unified view and approach, coordination across its remit, and the independence to make strategic policy.

Collectively it managed a budget for space activities, but the application of this budget was decided through consensus across its partners. This resulted in a splintered set of supported programs and a series of lost opportunities for the UK and its domestic activities.

Within the UK there had been increasing pressure from space industry leaders for better government support. To support their cause the domestic space industry collectively set up and funded the Case for Space, an economic study that demonstrated the value of the space industry to the UK economy.

This set in motion a government-led investigation called the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy (Space IGS). This studied in more detail the size and health of the domestic space industry, identified the civil space stakeholders and investigated areas in most need of support and growth.

A share of the space market

Core to the findings of the Space IGS was that UK needed a space program with the one primary goal – to capture 10% of the global space market and have a centralised government agency to deliver it.

The 10% goal is an important stake in the ground. It sets out a requirement for growth and forces the government to approach the industry as an economic asset. Shortly after, the UK Space Agency (UKSA) was formed.

70,000 jobs supported by the UK space sector. UK Space Agency

The agency was set up very quickly to precede the 2010 general election. Its initial funding and responsibilities were transferred directly from the BNSC, allowing the transition to take place with little to no extra spending.

The agency has been much more effective than the BNSC. In the last four years there has been more support for industry, more technology development, and simplified and expanded access to satellite data. The UKSA has also allowed more strategic participation in larger international (mainly European Space Agency (ESA)) programs.

Most importantly, in working towards growing the UK civil space market the UKSA has helped set up programmes that are assisting established space businesses, aiding the establishment of new ones and helping the agency meet the targeted 10% market share.

What should Australia do?

Looking at the performance of the UKSA in its first few years, and considering the similarities of the BNSC and the SCO, it is clear Australia could be getting much more out of its space industry.

The space industry is a rapidly growing market averaging a yearly growth rate of 7.5%. It is expected to grow from a A$322 billion to A$722 billion industry over the next 20 years.

Australia has so far captured only about A$1.2 billion or just 0.37% of the existing market.

Of this potential extra A$400 billion future market it is expected that new activities will make up a significant portion. This future market is likely to comprise downstream use of new satellite data (positioning, navigation, earth imaging) along with upstream opportunities in the area of small satellites, consumer electronics in space and space tourism.

This is to the advantage of high tech countries with less of an established space industry, as this market will depend less on established infrastructure and businesses, and more on innovation and technology transfer.

But failure to engage with this now will lose Australia the ability to compete in this market in the future.

Learning from the UK process, the key steps to consider for a centralised civil space agency in Australia would be:

  1. carry out a government initiated Space IGS-style report on Australian space activities, built on the studies already performed under the Australian Space Research Program
  2. define a clear vision and set achievable goals for the industry
  3. review agency models for the best fit for the Australian situation
  4. act on it – consolidate space budgets and assign appropriate authority to the agency (additional government funding is not a prerequisite)
  5. develop a space policy to support the goals of the agency

In the UK, the space industry pushed for the formation of the UKSA mostly as a reaction against the inadequacies of the BNSC and lost commercial opportunities. The end result was a more efficient and more decisive agency with far reaching benefits across the industry, academia and government.

In Australia, the space industry is showing a growing appetite for this. The Space Industry Association of Australia (SIAA) is preparing a strategic document examining its vision for the Australian space industry in the near future.

Additionally there are a growing number of start-ups (Sabre Astronautics, LaunchBox, etc) and support networks (DeltaV) targeting space opportunities.

This could all be done in a more proactive manner. The opportunity exists to see the benefits of a strategic agency promoting a consistent agenda, to best take advantage of the changing nature of the space industry.

Andrew Dempster receives funding from the Australian Research Council and has received funding from the Australian Space Research Program.

Barnaby Osborne and Elias Aboutanios do not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article. They also have no relevant affiliations.

Australian curriculum review: what the submissions say

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:18
Most specialists say there was nothing wrong with the curriculum to begin withAAP

The Donnelly-Wiltshire Review of the Australian Curriculum is due at the end of the month. We know a bit about what the reviewers thought before they began, but what have submissions to the review told them?

Before his appointment, Professor Ken Wiltshire described the curriculum as “poor and patchy” and “condemned by experts in just about every discipline”.

The other reviewer, Dr Kevin Donnelly, has argued that the Australian Curriculum is ideologically biased. He has said that the history curriculum is “hostile to Western civilisation” and that English is “nodding in the direction of phonics” but favours progressive reading teaching “where children are taught to look and guess".

Submissions will not be published on the review website until the final report is released, but many of them are available on their organisations’ websites. What do they say?

Condemned by experts?

Everyone’s a curriculum critic – we’ve all been to school – but there is strong support for the Australian Curriculum from the subject experts: the national teachers’ associations.

The mathematics teachers’ association argues that the Australian Curriculum “provides a world-class vision for mathematics in schooling”. The science teachers’ association describes the curriculum as “truly comprehensive” and “academically rigorous".

The history teachers’ association says that the development process had resulted in “a dynamic, engaging, flexible and balanced curriculum". The national English teachers’ association describes the curriculum as “robust”, providing “a rich resource to guide teacher planning and professional development”.

There are legitimate differences of opinion among well-informed people about the ideal scope and sequences of learning in school subjects. But the art of curriculum development is to strike a balance among these sincerely held but conflicting views.

Poor and patchy?

School sector submissions say less about the individual subjects but - with the clear exception of New South Wales - are satisfied with the development and consultation processes. Western Australia, a state that has always been sceptical about the national curriculum project, describes the consultative process as “comprehensive and thorough”, involving “extensive checks and balances”.

One of the checks and balances was an independent comparison with the English, mathematics and science taught in high-performing systems (New Zealand, Ontario, Finland and Singapore). The review concluded that the differences between the Australian Curriculum and high-performing comparators are slight.

Content topics were common across the jurisdictions, but there were small differences in order and emphasis. In science, for example, evolution is studied earlier in Ontario, Canada, than in Australia. There was more emphasis on analysis and less emphasis on procedures than in Finland.

Biased in History?

Dr Donnelly has characterised the history curriculum as:

hostile towards the institutions, beliefs and grand narrative associated with Western civilisation that make this nation unique.

The Australian Christian Lobby and the Institute of Public Affairs were among the few organisations whose publicly available submissions supported this view.

In contrast, the national history teachers’ association has argued that the curriculum has been developed “with a high degree of independence and balance” and that:

the existing depth of studies provide all students with the opportunity to understand the emergence of Western civilisation and democratic principles as well as Australia’s rich history.

In addition, the influential Australian Primary Principals Association has explicitly ruled out bias in the history curriculum, arguing that:

the current document provides a good account of the kind of historical understanding and practice that young Australians should learn.

Nodding towards the basics?

Dr Donnelly criticised the English curriculum for merely “nodding in the direction of teaching phonics and phonemic awareness”. I’ve written elsewhere about the importance of explicit teaching of reading and I am satisfied that the Australian Curriculum meets the requirements laid out by the Rowe Review of the teaching of reading in Australia.

This is confirmed by an external comparison of the national English curriculum with the state and territory curriculum documents. This review concluded there were quite high levels of agreement between state and national English syllabuses, with the exception of South Australia. Compared with the national curriculum, South Australia had:

very low relative ratings in: ‘Phonemic awareness’, ‘Phonics’, ‘Vocabulary’ and ‘Text and print features’ and to some extent in ‘Fluency’, all areas in which the South Australian materials were ‘not explicit'.

More recently, documents prepared to assist teachers to move from the Victorian Essential Learning Standards to the Australian Curriculum have noted that the latter “contains more detailed reference to specific reading strategies, including phonics”, “more specific reference to language features and functions” and “more specific references to literary and multi-modal texts, and to use of ICT” than the curriculum that preceded it.

Overcrowded?

One by one, more than a dozen subject associations have said that they are satisfied with the curriculum developed in their own subjects, but many other stakeholders think that the sum of these subjects has led to an overcrowded curriculum.

The Australian Primary Principals Association reminds the reviewers that it has been warning since 2008 that there’s too much content for children and teachers to cover.

Most of the school system and sector submissions agree. The Queensland Studies Authority submission, for example, is satisfied with consultation on each subject but argues that there has been “too little discussion about how it all fits together”. New South Wales has argued that overcrowding is a consequence of the original decision to develop a curriculum in four subjects, rather than designing from “an overall curriculum blueprint”.

Timing?

There are things to be fixed in the current version of the Australian Curriculum. At least in the primary years the most recently developed subjects – geography, civics and citizenship, economics and business, the arts – seem to be crowding out the space left over after English, mathematics, science and history.

This needs to be fixed, either by reducing content and time allocations in some subjects, beginning some subjects later in the primary years when the obligations of literacy and numeracy have been met, or adopting a core-plus-options strategy.

But if there is one thing that almost all of the submissions agree on, it is too soon for major rewriting of the curriculum. Stakeholders have spent too much time and effort negotiating the current version. As the South Australian independent schools’ submission put it, the “overriding message” from their schools is “do not mess with too much too soon".

Bill Louden represented Western Australia on the Board of the Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority from 2008 to 2012.

It takes a global village: how we got ahead in HIV control

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:17
From the late 1990s, the world galvanised in support of dramatic increases in funding for the distribution of HIV treatments to all who needed them.World national flags/Shuttershock

When AIDS first emerged in the early 1980s, HIV infection was a death sentence. But a global effort has ensured this is no longer the case for a growing number of people.

The good news today is that the annual number of new global infections continues to fall – from the high point of some 3.4 million in 2001 to 2.3 million in 2012. And, as fewer people contract HIV, and more of those who do are given life-saving treatments, fewer progress to AIDS.

In 2005, some 2.3 million people died from AIDS, but this number had declined to 1.6 million in 2012. These figures indicate how far we have come in the long journey from AIDS to HIV.

Early efforts and innovation

Countries such as Australia that moved decisively to introduce effective HIV prevention policies in the mid-1980s generally saw a rapid falling away in numbers of new HIV infections.

But in most of the world, for a range of social, political and religious reasons, effective prevention measures were either not introduced or not implemented on a large enough scale to make a difference.

And it soon became clear that if the developing world were to survive the epidemic, new treatments would have to be provided at a scale and with a level of certainty that was unprecedented in the annals of global public health.

What was missing was the funding required to translate the potential of widespread access to treatments into tangible reality on the ground.

From the late 1990s, the world galvanised in support of dramatic increases in funding for the distribution of HIV treatments to all who required them.

Former US president Bill Clinton successfully pressed major pharmaceutical companies to greatly reduce the unit costs of new HIV treatments in the developing world. And thanks to the leadership of president George W Bush, the United States Congress appropriated $US50 billion for the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

In 2002, an innovative new financial mechanism, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria was created to raise and channel new funding to countries wishing to increase access to HIV treatments. It has raised over $US30 billion to fight against the three diseases, and about half of this has funded access to HIV treatments in some 150 countries.

At the 2013 Global Fund replenishment conference in Washington DC, convened by President Barack Obama, governments, philanthropic, faith-based and private sector donors pledged over $US12 billion for the period 2014-16, a 30% increase over a similar 2010 effort.

Over nine million people worldwide now have access to life-saving HIV treatments, thanks to these two initiatives.

Changing direction

Taken together, this vast mobilisation of all kinds of human and material resources has utterly transformed the trajectory of the global HIV epidemic.

If they are on treatments, people who would once have died from AIDS are now living well with HIV; the number of children being born with HIV is falling dramatically; and above all, many millions of people who once would have surely acquired HIV, have not.

The world is now more than halfway along the path from AIDS to HIV, but none of these great achievements would have been possible without sustained funding commitments, stretching out over years and decades.

And in 2014, there is still much more to do.

Even though annual HIV funding from developed to developing countries is running at about $US18 billion, this is still about $US5 billion a year short of what’s required to sustain the gains of the last decade. And there are many millions of people who are still without access to HIV treatments.

To consolidate our gains, and to drive new HIV infection rates down still further, billions of new dollars will be needed. But the required resources are not just going to come from the same old donors in the same old ways; we must develop innovative and imaginative new methods of securing critical funding.

The international response to HIV has always been a hotbed of radical policy innovation and implementation – from the bold prevention initiatives undertaken in Australia to the creation of the Global Fund itself.

By following the right strategies, backed by adequate funding, the world is closer towards the end of HIV and AIDS than at any time in the last three decades. Now is not the time to relent.

The work of the Pacific Friends of the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria is funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Environmentalists have a right to protest – but not at all costs

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 06:17
Environmental activist Jonathan Moylan (centre) with supporters as he leaves a Sydney court in 2013. Moylan has been charged over a hoax email that affected the share price of Whitehaven Coal.AAP Image/Dean Lewins

Here is a tough question – what are the limits of legitimate protest? As Lord Keynes is famously reputed to have said, everything depends on everything else. What is protest? What is legitimate?

I’m going to take as my starting point that protest is legitimised by the rule of law. The kind of acceptable behaviour that one might observe in a liberal democracy is very different from that in a dictatorship.

Another way of stating the case is to argue that the social licence to protest varies in time and place.

Many protesters, however, are of the view that they have unlimited licence to protest. That once their intentions are self-declared to be noble that there can be no limit on their behaviour.

Licence to lie?

Take, for example, the Whitehaven Coal hoaxer Jonathan Moylan, who faked an ANZ press release stating that the bank had withdrawn a A$1.2 billion loan facility due to environmental concerns. He is currently awaiting sentencing after pleading guilty to disseminating false or misleading information affecting market participation. His actions were clearly illegal, yet there is a website that describes his actions as being civil disobedience and an act of good conscience. Elected members of the federal parliament congratulated him on his actions.

Consider another example. Clive Hamilton recently complained that Australian security agencies were monitoring anti-coal activists. Small-l liberal minded people might be horrified at that prospect – until we also read Elizabeth Farrelly in the Sydney Morning Herald telling us democracy has failed, and calling for a “people’s revolution”.

To be fair, Farrelly might be engaging in some hyperbole, but our security agencies are paid to be paranoid.

The rule of law

The thing is this: however noble “saving the planet” might be, in a liberal democracy, under the rule of law, protest must be conducted through both non-violent and non-coercive means.

Restricting violence and coercion is a legitimate function of government. As the great liberal economist Ludwig von Mises indicated:

One must be in a position to compel the person who will not respect the lives, health, personal freedom, or private property of others to acquiesce in the rules of life in society. This is the function that the liberal doctrine assigns to the state: the protection of property, liberty, and peace.

We might want to believe that environmental activists should be able to issue false media releases, or even conspire to overthrow the democratically elected government without interference from the authorities. But the proper way to do so is to campaign for those changes at the ballot box.

As it turns out, the environmental movement is failing to convince voters or politicians of their cause. Last year the International Energy Agency reported “15% of global CO2 emissions receive an incentive of $110 per tonne in the form of fossil-fuel subsidies while only 8% are subject to a carbon price.” With Australia about to abolish the carbon tax that 8% figure will be falling.

It’s not just Australia; the Climate Change Performance Index shows that “no single country is yet on track to prevent dangerous climate change”.

Small wonder the broader environmental movement is turning to non-liberal and non-democratic means to pursue their aims.

Making environmentalists accountable for their actions

The fossil fuel divestment campaign is a prime example. This is an internationally orchestrated, well-funded, and apparently sophisticated campaign against fossil fuel investment. Once you strip away the apparent sophistication of their argument you end up more or less with a call for a series of secondary boycotts of fossil fuel producers and their sources of capital.

At the moment environmental groups are exempt from the prohibition on secondary boycotts. This is an astonishing exemption for a country that trumpets equality before the law.

The Abbott government has flagged that this exemption will be removed. There are some, like my good friend Chris Berg, who argue that the whole notion of secondary boycotts are inconsistent with the right to free speech.

The fossil fuel divestment campaign, with its explicit aim of stigmatising Australia’s coal industry, might well fall foul of s1041E of the Corporations Act 2001. The same section of the same law used to convict Jonathan Moylan.

The campaign to convince investors to divest from fossil fuels on the basis of an undefined “carbon bubble” that can only exist if and when environmental activists convince government to change the rules of the game – having failed up until now – is something the corporate and market regulators should be closely examining.

Environmentalists have the right to campaign for their policies, but they don’t have the right to provide misleading stock market advice.

The argument that fossil fuels have social costs does not undermine my position at all. Yes, the social costs of fossil fuels exceed zero – but it isn’t clear that these costs exceed the social benefits of fossil fuel usage.

Access to cheap and reliable energy will do more to alleviate global poverty and foster economic development everywhere than the environmental movement ever will. By agitating for a divestment from fossil fuels, the environmental movement are condemning millions of people to a lower lifestyle and standard of living than they would otherwise enjoy.

Sinclair Davidson is Professor of Institutional Economics at RMIT University and an honorary senior fellow at the Institute of Public Affairs. His opinion pieces have been published in The Age, The Australian, Australian Financial Review, The Daily Telegraph, Sydney Morning Herald, and Wall Street Journal Asia. His report "A critique of the coal divestment campaign" was published by the Minerals Council of Australia.

Rising energy costs and insecurity show EU must get real about reducing demand

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 03:52
Energy use - shrink it.Tobias Maier, CC BY-SA

In proposing a 30% rather than a 40% energy demand reduction target, the European Commission is increasing the risks that European Union member states face from fossil fuel dependence and slowing the economic and social benefits of better insulated homes and lower energy bills.

The EU should have the courage to adopt a legally binding target of 40% energy savings by 2030 as was originally proposed. This would ensure that all member states introduce effective energy efficiency policies and would reinforce the EU’s leadership role in reducing carbon emissions and preventing dangerous climate change.

The proposed 30% target suggests a weakening of political commitment. Several studies have shown how the technology and strategies are available to achieve more ambitious reductions without imposing a burden on the economy. For example, there are already cars currently available that are 40% more fuel-efficient than the current EU standard – and changes in design and materials can reduce emissions by more than 40%.

A legally binding 40% target would potentially reduce EU gas imports by up to 40% compared to 2010, roughly equivalent to the amount of gas currently imported from Russia. It would reduce household energy bills through improved energy efficiency, lowering levels of fuel poverty and reducing the effects of poor-quality housing on health. And it would reduce the scale of investment in renewable energy infrastructure by reducing energy demand.

A binding target would ensure political commitment to the task of developing effective energy-efficiency policies and provide long-term confidence for investors delivering commercial goods and services for energy efficiency. It would also drive innovation in energy-efficient products, opening up market opportunities for EU industries around the world.

Why adopt a target as well as energy efficiency policies? Improving energy efficiency is the cheapest and fastest way of reducing carbon emissions, while at the same time providing economic, social and environmental benefits. Without an ambitious overall energy-efficiency target it’s unlikely that member states would unlock these benefits. Nor can these benefits be achieved through the carbon price delivered through the EU emissions trading scheme.

An aggregate target helps ensure that energy savings in one area are not offset by the rebound effect of increased energy demand in another. A legally binding target at the EU level would help ensure that progress is monitored, action is taken and results achieved. None of this is incompatible with the emissions trading scheme provided the appropriate steps are taken to ensure a minimum carbon price.

A 40% target is within our grasp, technically and economically, and would send a strong message that EU intends to lead on these issues. Regional instability in North Africa, the Middle East and now Ukraine has shown time and again that over-reliance on imported fossil fuels makes countries vulnerable to price shocks and supply interruptions.

We need to reduce those risks and at the same time protect the climate. Improved energy efficiency comes top of the list for cost-effectiveness and wider benefits. Recent progress has demonstrated that significant reductions in energy consumption can be achieved while maintaining productivity and quality of life – UK energy consumption fell by 12% between 2000-2012, while GDP increased by 58%.

Improvements in technology and changes in behaviour will make a 40% reduction by 2030 not only desirable but entirely achievable. But it must be backed up by political commitment.

John Barrett receives funding from the Research Council's Energy Programme for the UK INDEMAND Centre and the UK Energy Research Centre

Andrew ZP Smith receives funding from Research Councils UK. He works for the UCL Energy Institute.

Steve Sorrell receives funding from the RCUK Energy Programme as part of the Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand.

As a Sakharov laureate and a mother, I call on the EU to help save Palestinians – and Israel

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 03:38
Occupation is brutalising Israelis as much as it is Palestinians.EPA/Jim Hollander

Times are very rough for both Israeli and Palestinian families. The death toll in Gaza currently stands at around 620, 74 of whom are children. The death toll in Israel stands at 30, two of whom were civilians. Three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank. A Palestinian youth from Jerusalem was burned alive by Jewish extremists.

Dangerous and violent racism against Arab Israeli citizens encouraged by Israeli ministers and parliament members leads to riots in the streets, breeds aggression and severe discrimination against Palestinians, along with a new aggression against peace activists.

Israel is currently suffering from an unprecedented social and economic crisis. The single source for this crisis is Israel’s destructive occupation. The occupation has raised two generations of Palestinians as prisoners jailed between military checkpoints and walls.

The two generations of Israelis who believe that they are the lords of the land are nurtured by the illusion that the oppression of 4.5m Palestinians gives them security and peace, and that such an oppressive society is capable of raising compassionate children. Therefore they are shocked when their boys become ruthless killers, as is revealed by current events.

Illegal settlements

One of the most dominant and disastrous expressions of the occupation is the settlement project in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which is illegal under international law. The settlements allow Israel to take control of Palestinians’ natural resources in violation of international law, to strengthen its presence in the territories, and to make the occupation irreversible.

Despite agreements, international resolutions and Israeli promises, the settlements are expanding. All the while, Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and so-called “Area C” (61% of the West Bank, under full Israeli control) are constantly destroyed.

A Palestinian boy runs for cover during a protest against illegal settlement at of Kadum, on the West Bank. EPA/Alaa Badarneh

While water flows in the settlements without limitation, Palestinian villages live under a cruel water regime, as was recently pointed out by the president of the European parliament, Martin Schultz, during a speech he made before the Israeli Parliament. Many roads are closed to Palestinians and the restriction of movement is unbearable.

World must do more

To this day, the international community has not done enough to stop Israeli settlements. European countries have profoundly criticised them while continuing to co-operate fully with Israel, economically, politically and militarily. As a result, Israel does not pay any price for seriously violating international law. On the contrary, Europe also pays for much of the humanitarian damage of the occupation, making it even easier for Israel to maintain.

A year ago, the EU made a small step in the right direction: guidelines were issued prohibiting EU institutions to fund or to finance research organisations and activities in the settlements. Twenty European countries have published formal warnings to their citizens and companies regarding trade and financial relations with the settlements.

And yet, these measures do not seriously challenge Israeli policy in occupied Palestine. Europe could do much better as illustrated by its response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. It took the EU a few weeks – not years – to make its stance against Russian actions crystal clear. Just this week the EU has taken a further bold step in suspending the funding of new public-sector projects in Russia by the EU’s lending institution, the European Investment Bank.

This is in addition to the previous decision to ban the import of Crimean goods, and to impose targeted sanctions on both Russian and Ukrainian officials and on business firms operating in Crimea. This all occurred, of course, well before the Malaysian jet was shot down just this week.

Israel fostering apartheid

Israel controls millions of Palestinians under an ongoing military occupation, claiming that this situation is “temporary”. However, a military occupation of 47 years, which includes the establishment of settlements, cannot be described as “temporary”.

Israel also mourns its dead in this endless conflict. EPA/Baz Ratner

As an Israeli longing for peace and justice, I believe Europe has to contain the settlement policy with greater determination and more concrete measures.

The world increasingly understands the threat that the settlements pose to peace and stability in the region.

Over time, neither Palestinians nor Israelis can survive without freedom and independence for the Palestinians. Already, the undemocratic character of the state of Israel is increasingly transforming it into an apartheid state.

For the two nations living in this region, there is a joint and real interest in ending the Israeli occupation as a precondition for peace. We, the citizens of Israel and the stateless people of Palestine, cannot bring this about on our own. We need the help of the international community at large and of the EU in particular.

As a laureate of the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Human Rights, and as a mother and a human being, I call on the EU to use all the diplomatic and economic tools at its disposal to help save my country from the abyss of eternal occupation and injustice.

Nurit Peled-Elhanan does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

How harsher sanctions could help Putin turn Russia back into the Soviet Union

The Conversation - Thu, 24/07/2014 - 01:04
Putin has 'tier three' sanctions in his sights.EPA

The downing of flight MH17 has caused attention to shift once again to the prospect of even harsher penalties being imposed upon Russia by Western countries. Up to this point, sanctions have been limited to individuals within or close to Russia’s ruling elite, as well as a few associated companies. While these sanctions may weaken support within Russia’s elite for the current course of foreign policy, the effect on economic activity in Russia has been relatively muted.

The most recent discussions among European leaders led to an expansion of the existing list of Russians subject to asset freezes and visa bans. But a decision on whether to apply so-called “third tier” sanctions – that is, sanctions applied to whole sectors of the Russian economy, or export bans on technology that might be used in Russia’s defence or energy sectors – was once again postponed, although this may change if Western countries lose patience with what they consider to be Russian intransigence in Ukraine.

With these discussions ongoing, it is useful to consider what might happen if Europe and the US were to impose an enhanced package of economic sanctions.

Aiming high

A useful starting point is to consider the objectives of Western policy makers in applying sanctions in the first place. The “surgical” nature of sanctions imposed so far suggests that Western governments do not intend to seriously harm Russia’s economy or its people.

Instead, the array of measures so far chosen – focused as they are on individuals and entities with close ties to President Putin, his inner circle, and those with direct ties to the conflict in Ukraine – has likely been selected to inflict pain on key members of Russia’s ruling elite, in the hope that this will force them to pressure Putin to change his foreign policy.

This strategy is based on certain assumptions about the nature of Russia’s political system. By focusing sanctions on the elite, Western policy makers are showing that they think it is those at the top, and not the wider electorate, who determine the direction of foreign policy in Russia. Any future escalation of sanctions to encompass Russia’s strategic sectors – defence, energy and finance – might be viewed as a logical step in ramping up pressure on the elite.

Strengthening the regime

But what if “third tier” sanctions have the opposite effect, and instead of weakening elite support for Putin they cause a strengthening of the current regime? This could happen because sanctions have specific distributional effects in oligarchic regimes like Russia, and can serve to bolster the state and enrich politically important individuals and organisations. This could happen if the leadership in Russia decides to use sanctions as an opportunity to transfer economic resources to key political allies.

To illustrate this point, consider how Russia might respond to an embargo on Western defence or dual-use technology to Russia. While existing supply chains would be interrupted, it would offer the leadership the chance to shift more resources to develop domestic industries instead.

This wouldn’t be great from an economic point of view, as it is unlikely that Russia would be able to produce goods as well or as efficiently as Western firms any time soon. But from a political perspective, the diversion of extra resources to the domestic defence industry would create a constituency that would benefit from sanctions. In the context of Russia’s ongoing rearmament programme, this outcome could increase defence industry support for the current leadership.

While this may sound counter intuitive, it is precisely what happened in South Africa after the imposition of the UN arms embargo in 1977. The sanctions were supposed to help end apartheid, but they had the unintended effect of strengthening the country’s manufacturing sector. In particular, the creation of the Armaments Corporation of South Africa (ARMSCOR) in response to the embargo proved to be a boon for the ruling regime. Domestic high-technology capabilities were enhanced, and ARMSCOR became a major player in the global arms market. Most importantly, it enabled the regime to secure support from a key constituency that was a direct beneficiary of sanctions.

Going solo?

Major sanctions could lead to something similar happening in Russia’s vital energy sector. It is widely acknowledged that Russia will require access to foreign technology and know-how in the future if is to exploit the geologically harder to reach oil and gas deposits in the Arctic and the Far East. But if sanctions denied this, Russia might opt to expand direct state ownership of the industry, and form partnerships with state-owned companies from friendlier countries (China, for instance) to develop indigenous solutions to existing geological challenges.

Again, this solution would not be as economically efficient as current arrangements to access technology and know-how through joint ventures with the likes of BP and Exxon-Mobil. But those charged with managing an energy industry dominated even more by the state than it is now would arguably become even more powerful, not less.

Taken together, the hypothetical scenarios briefly outlined here would represent a reversal from the path of reintegration with the global economy that Russia has undergone over the course of the last twenty years. Instead, a self-sufficient, quasi-autarkic relationship with the global economy could emerge. Although Russia would remain far more open that it was during the Soviet era, it would be a deeply worrying step backwards for those hoping the country would become an open and active part of the global economy.

From South Africa to Iraq or Zimbabwe, sanctions do not always work as intended. Unless carefully tailored to the situation in Moscow, a policy designed to alter Russian behaviour in Ukraine may instead end up achieving an entirely unintended and undesirable outcome: the strengthening of the current regime, and a reassessment of Russia’s role in the global economy.

Richard Connolly does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Nobel laureate: for inspiration, I take to the sky and fly with birds

The Conversation - Wed, 23/07/2014 - 23:54
Flying is not an easy job, and neither is science.EPA, CC BY

Oliver Smithies won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 2007 “for discoveries of principles for introducing specific gene modifications in mice by the use of embryonic stem cells”.

Mohit Kumar Jolly, researcher at the University of Rice and contributor to The Conversation, interviewed him at the 2014 Lindau Nobel Laureates Meeting.

Where do you think good ideas come from?

I fly a glider, and I turn off the engine at some altitude, and then the glider needs upwards thrust to maintain itself. I often spot a hawk then, and start to fly in the direction it is flying, because it [the hawk] is also looking for the upward thrust, so if I follow it, I’ll also get the thrust. So my flying experience also makes me think.

I still go to the lab every day, even on weekends. Very often ideas for research comes from our experiences or memories – it takes only one moment for the idea to occur, but it takes a lifetime sometimes to show that it works.

You have been in science for a very long time. How, in your opinion, has the culture of science changed over time?

Not much actually. Scientists then as well as now want to be known as “the first one to do something”. When Galileo discovered Jupiter’s moon, he was worried about the same, and even today, scientists are afraid of the same [not being first].

But hasn’t this intense competition caused scientific misconduct increase significantly today?

Yes, but it must be understood that scientists are not different from other communities – of course, you’ll find many dishonest scientists.

Do you agree that more dialogue between science and the public is needed to ensure the trust people have in science?

That is very much required. I haven’t done as much in this aspect as I should have done, but I’d like to share an anecdote. When we were doing experiments on cloning genes, the community in Cambridge, Massachusetts revolted against our plan, due to various fears associated with cloning. But, in Wisconsin, we invited the media and explained to them in detail what exact experiments we were planning, and also listening to their misinformed fears and clarifying them – they finally allowed us happily to do those experiments.

What is your opinion of fellow Nobel Laureate Randy Schekman’s attack on the three big science journals – Science, Nature, Cell?

I believe that what matters more is not where you publish, but what you publish. A good scientist is a global citizen, and I support open access and sharing of ideas.

What message would you give to young scientists?

Find something that you enjoy doing, and then pursue it. It need not be science, but must be something that excites you.

A version of this interview appeared on the Lindau Nobel blog.

Oliver Smithies does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Evidence-based medicine is broken: why we need data and technology to fix it

The Conversation - Wed, 23/07/2014 - 23:50
Evidence based medicine


A recent paper in the British Medical Journal suggests that evidence-based medicine is in crisis. Evidence-based medicine is based on the practice of employing treatments that have scientific research that backs up their effectiveness. It is usually set against medical practice that is based on anecdotal experience or simply doing things because that is the way they always have been done.

Ways evidence-based medicine is broken

The authors of the paper point out however that there are a number of problems with evidence-based medicine that together, significantly compromise its effectiveness. The first problem is that evidence-based medicine plays right into the hands of companies and organisations with a vested interest in seeing a treatment recommended. Of particular concern are drugs that are recommended for treating pre-diseases. The classic example of this is the use of statins to lower cholesterol in the attempt of reducing cardiovascular disease.

The National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) has offered evidence-based guidance on prescribing statins that has reduced the required level of risk before treatment is offered, effectively increasing the number of people taking statins significantly. The bar for being put on statins is very low and cholesterol levels can be considered normal and the person could still have a risk profile that puts them on the pathway for treatment.

Drug companies have a vested interest in funding trials and journals are more likely to publish positive results than negative ones. The authors of the BMJ paper cite “one review of industry sponsored trials of antidepressants showed that 37 of 38 with positive findings, but only 14 of 36 with negative findings, were published”.

Another major problem with evidence-based medicine is the fact that statistical significance in a clinical trial does not necessarily mean very much at an individual level. This works to overemphasise benefits and to underestimate risks.

People writing the guidelines to implement evidence-based medicine face a growing challenge of dealing with ever increasing amounts of evidence. At the end of this are the clinicians that have to deal with an explosion in the guidelines themselves which can be complicated and even more so when they have to be applied to a patient with all of the real-life complexity and idiosyncrasies that they bring.

The authors are not suggesting abandoning evidence as the basis for clinical treatment. What they end up recommending are modifications of how the evidence is gathered, reported and implemented.

Technology and data as a solution

What the authors don’t mention though is the role that technology has to play in providing a solution for the problems that they have outlined. The first element of a technology-based solution actually runs counter to the author’s point of crisis. What is needed is more evidence and data, not less. Large data sets providing detailed monitoring of patients combined with genetic information will eventually be able to reveal specific information about what makes a treatment work in one patient and not another. This type of information goes much further than the limited range of measures normally collected as part of current clinical trials. To enable this collection of data, we will need to be monitoring people pervasively and collecting that information on a continuous basis.

Clinical analytics of this so-called “clinical big data” can potentially reveal much more information about the effectiveness of particular drugs and treatments given a specific individual with a set of symptoms and illnesses. What we will then need is sophisticated artificial intelligence as portrayed in the fictional film “Her” that guides clinicians through a range of true evidence-based treatment options that have been personalised for the specific patient at that moment in time.

It is possible that as a society we are not ready to trust the likes of Google CEO Larry Page with the task of collecting and analysing patient data on this massive a scale. He declared our ability to save thousands of lives through this approach. Despite our reticence, it is clear that he is right.

Companies such as PatientsLikeMe have also faced skepticism when arguing their ability to contribute to clinical research through the massive, but self-reported data they collect from patients.

Despite the resistance, sites like PatientsLikeMe, CureTogether and the personalised genetic profiling company 23andMe are part of the future of medicine.

These companies have the ability of providing extensive information about the effectiveness of treatments, symptoms and side effects of people outside of the restrictions, and some would say artificial settings, of a clinical trial.

All of this does not deny the needs for the skills of a doctor, at least until the technology has advanced to the point where it makes those skills redundant.

David Glance does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Judging the Man Booker Prize: how I read 145 novels in seven months

The Conversation - Wed, 23/07/2014 - 23:45
A daunting prospect. Thomas Hawk, CC BY-NC-SA

This year’s run-up to the naming of the Man Booker Prize winner has just begun, with the announcement of the 13 novels that make up the longlist. They will soon be dissected and analysed by readers and critics all over the world. For the first time, the prize has been open to writers of any nationality, as long as their work was originally in English and was published in the UK.

Four Americans feature in the list: Joshua Ferris, Siri Hustvedt, Karen Joy Fowler and Richard Powers. There’s an Australian (Richard Flanagan), an American/Irish writer (Joseph O'Neill), an Irish contender (Niall Williams), and six British authors (including Howard Jacobson, David Mitchell and Ali Smith). Three women appear on the list and ten men.

Judging any literary prize is tough, but the size of the task confronting the panel of the Man Booker Prize is enough to make anyone shiver. I was among the five judges in 2012, and the experience turned out to be one of the most demanding and exhilarating of my life. We read a total of 145 books – in about half a year. Most of them were put forward by their publishers, but a few were those we called in ourselves. It’s hard to believe, looking back, that we voluntarily added to our burdens, but we were crazily eager to include every serious contender. So, how was it done? Many people, understandably, assume that we just read part of the submissions, or divided the books between us.

In fact, there was no division, and no dodging. Each of the judges read the entire list and we all worked through them in the same order. Proof copies started to come in well before Christmas and the longlist was announced in late July, so we had seven months to complete the reading. Some short works could be dispatched quickly, which was just as well, but others refused to be rushed.

We had monthly meetings to share our verdicts, discussing each novel in turn. The panel had plenty of professional experience in reading quickly and carefully – and that made a difference. But mostly the work was done by abandoning much that we take for granted in day-to-day life – including, as I recall, any kind of social life or domestic responsibility (we were all blessed with patient and tolerant partners). Every spare moment, and some moments that were not really spare, was spent with heads buried in a book. We became obsessed, immersed in a world of fiction.

Brief to find the best

Our brief was simple. We were looking for the “best, eligible full-length novel in the opinion of the judges”, as the terms of entry stipulate. The prize is not given to an author on the basis of reputation or life-time achievement, but to the novel that in our collective judgement was the “best” to be published that year. We hung on to that fundamental point. It helped us to be clear about our priorities, and stiffened our resolve to set aside the work of distinguished writers, if we felt that novels by less familiar names had stronger claims. We were equally determined not to allow “opinion” to degenerate into whim, or personal predilection.

Our meetings were hugely enjoyable, but they were also intellectually rigorous. Our chair, Sir Peter Stothard, insisted that our choices must be backed by evidence and argument, founded on the reasoned analysis of the conceptual and stylistic strengths of the novels we were scrutinising. Perhaps our instincts as a panel were unusually academic, but the meetings often felt like the most testing kind of seminar, where no-one was allowed to get away with sloppy thinking. This was a powerful inducement to keep up the work rate. It would have been impossible to argue for or against any particular book if you hadn’t read it, didn’t have notes, hadn’t thought through your response.

The process of judgement was disciplined and methodical, but what lingers in my memory is the dizzying excitement of the reading. Encountering so much fiction in such a short space of time, most of it of high quality (there were few duds), was a strange and intoxicating experience. Even now, two years after my time as a judge, I can recall in precise detail passages and scenes from dozens of novels that didn’t make it onto the longlist, but had nevertheless exercised an iron grip on my imagination. It has become a cliché to note that fiction constantly defies prophecies of its imminent demise in a digital world, but reading those novels (some in hard copy, some on mobile devices) was a heady confirmation of the exuberance of the form.

Extending the scope of the prize to include writers of any national background means that American writers are now eligible, though publishers will not be entitled to submit more books under the new rules, so the number of novels on the judges’ list will not grow. Fiction is increasingly global in its origins and reach, and I welcome the change.

I doubt whether it will affect the essentials of the process – reaching the end of a chapter and noticing with dismay that it’s three in the morning; the lip-gnawing frustration of failing to persuade your fellow judges to admire a book that left you awestruck; the swell of satisfaction when a consensus is finally reached, and a winner emerges. For us, it was Hilary Mantel’s brilliant Bring up the Bodies. I’m looking forward to discovering what it will be in 2014.

Dinah Birch does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Still no good evidence that most complementary medicine works

The Conversation - Wed, 23/07/2014 - 23:25

The complementary medicine industry has been quick to respond to an opinion piece by Cassandra Wilkinson in The Australian newspaper on the lack of evidence for many complementary medicines, and particularly complementary medicines for children.

Alan Bensoussan of the National Institute of Complementary Medicine claimed in a follow-up letter to the Australian that complementary medicines included many well-established medicines (scroll down for the letter). He claimed that these well-established complementary medicines include medicines that prevent spina bifida in newborns, osteoporosis in the elderly, macular degeneration, cognitive decline, and childhood bronchitis.

Except, well, they don’t. You can search for clinical trials of complementary medicines for the above complaints that show them to be “well-established” and you will come up empty handed. You will find one or two studies suggesting that there might be a beneficial effect of some complementary medicine (see here for the inconsistent evidence for Ginkgo and macular degeneration), but nothing “well-established”.

Similarly, a search of systematic reviews, which look at the overall evidence from multiple studies, turns up nothing, although one treatment for osteoarthritis (not osteoporosis) glucosamine, might be beneficial in some patients. This is hardly “well-established” though.

If you go to the web site of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and look up “bronchitis” you get the following “There is not enough evidence to support the use of any complementary health practices for the relief of asthma”. If you look up cognitive decline, you get a page that shows all current complementary therapies either do not help (and this includes the favoured herb, Gingko) or have not enough evidence.

So where does Alan Benoussan’s claim come from? Some clarification comes from an article in Pharmacy News, where Steve Scarff, regulatory and scientific affairs director of the Australian Self Medication Industry, also claimed that there is a growing evidence base to support the use of complementary medicines. Mr Scarff used as examples of clinically-supported complementary medicines “calcium and vitamin D for osteoporosis, omega-3 fish oil for heart disease, folate for pregnant women in preventing spina bifida, iron supplementation for anaemia, and evidence to support St John’s Wort for depression”.

One problem here, all but one (St. John’s Wort) of these are conventional medicine, not complementary medicine. It was conventional medicine that researched the physiology, did the clinical trials and developed the therapies and approaches, not complementary medicine (calcium and vitamin D for osteoporosis (note that this is not “one size fits all” medication), omega-3 fish oil for heart disease, folate for pregnant women in preventing spina bifida). Just because you sell vitamin pills doesn’t mean you get to appropriate the hard work of medical researchers and clinicians.

“Complementary” use of vitamins is usually use of high dose vitamins, such as high dose vitamin C for colds and flu’s (which doesn’t really work) or high dose antioxidant vitamins (high dose fat soluble antioxidant vitamin are actually associated with slightly worse outcomes and in some cases a slight increase in death). And vitamin supplementation of healthy, non-vitamin deficient people also has no benefit.

St. John’s Wort does have a modest anti-depressant effect (although very variable due to wide differences in composition). It also has significant side effects and very serious interactions with conventional medicines, so is not recommended for therapy. People have died because of it. Information on the side effects of St. John’s Wort from points of sale are generally very poor and most consumers will be unaware of them (see also here)

The claims from the National Institute of Complementary Medicine and the Australian Self Medication Industry does nothing to address the issues brought up in the opinion piece, namely that there is no evidence that complementary medicine works for children and that between 70-90% of complementary medicines surveyed did not meet regulatory requirements (71% had manufacturing or quality problems). As well, complementary medicine sponsors drag their feet when asked to remove non-compliant medicines (see here and here).

This is what the National Institute of Complementary Medicine and the Australian Self Medication Industry should be dealing with, not claiming the work of conventional medicine as complementary medicine.

Ian Musgrave does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Backdoor discovered in Apple iOS devices that undermines iPhone security

The Conversation - Wed, 23/07/2014 - 23:17
Backdoor access.Morid1n, CC BY-NC-ND

Apple prides itself on the fact that its iOS, used on iPhones and iPads, is considered to be the most secure mobile and tablet-based operating system on the market. This is a fact that has – until now – been unchallenged when it comes to malware.

But recent research by systems security researcher Jonathan Zdziarski has highlighted some interesting and worrying “backdoors” to Apple’s operating system. Using some novel forensics techniques, he has shown how third parties can potentially gain access to users' personal data.

What are the vulnerabilities?

Zdziarski discovered that there is a file transfer service that bypasses the back-up encryption offered by Apple. This may be used by Apple employees as a troubleshooting tool when trying to fix damaged devices. But it begs the question: why can this service extract unencrypted files and why is it open to remote access?

Taking each vulnerability of the iOS in turn, Zdziarski notes that some do not appear to have been exploited yet. But he leaves open the idea that they are there to be used either by Apple, or in a Snowdenesqe world by government agencies like the NSA.

What is worrying is that these discoveries appear to be new code added to later versions of the iOS. This means Apple can’t claim that it is code left over from previous versions of the iOS. Though Apple has denied building back doors into their phones, the question remains of why this access has been added without users being given prior warning.

As a networking specialist, an addition I personally find very interesting is Zdziarski’s discovery of a “packet sniffer”. All devices connected to a network, send data packets. A packet sniffer allows network engineers to discover what is moving around our networks. But a tool like a packet sniffer can be misused – to listen in, for example, on network communications between individuals. Listed in the code as “com.apple.pcapd”, this can be run without you being notified.

This means that suddenly all your mobile broadband and wireless traffic is open to investigation – live, in real time and by someone you have never met. From DropBox to your iPhoto upload, email and any web traffic you are using via Safari is now open to analysis to those with the right networking know-how.

Potentially it isn’t difficult to create a logging server to collect all of this data and sift through at any time to see what you have. While this may currently be used in some support capacity by Apple, now that I am aware of its existence, I am also aware of the potential for compromise. It may only take a change in law or a cunning hack for someone unknown to get to see all your network data from your mobile device.

How worried should I be?

I take every reasonable precaution with my mobile devices and those used by my family to ensure that we are not unnecessarily vulnerable. But, with this paper revealing some very detailed analysis of the iOS operating system, options are limited when it comes to protecting your personal information from entry via these built-in “back doors”.

Unfortunately, apart from switching off your data connection or living inside a big metal box, making sure you never connect your phone to any form of mobile broadband or wireless network, there is little that you can do. Sadly, no other phone is better – but somehow the gold standard of security that Apple prides itself on has become a little tarnished.

Apple needs to tell the tech community as well as all its customers what these services accomplish. It must assure us that they are not vulnerable to compromise. To date Apple has denied that there is anything to be concerned about.

The worst that can happen for Apple and its millions of customers is that someone goes one better than the Oleg Pliss attack and digs a more serious hole in this system.

Andrew Smith does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Any nationalist sugar rush from the Commonwealth Games is unlikely to last long

The Conversation - Wed, 23/07/2014 - 23:15
I'd like Scottish independence and a large fries, please.Scottish Government, CC BY-SA

Celtic Park is hosting one of the biggest spectacles in the sporting calendar. The 40,000 spectators will be treated to the vagaries of the sports-media-entertainment complex: Rod Stewart, Susan Boyle and Amy Macdonald are due to perform while a 1020m2 mega-screen, Glasgow’s “Window on the Commonwealth,” will create a dramatic and immersive visual experience at the south stand.

With an estimated live global television audience of one billion, the ceremony will provide the city with an opportunity to strategically position itself in relation to the Commonwealth and stress the “generosity of spirit” tag-line that runs through the Glasgow narrative. Yet even though such events usually focus on the host city, there appears to be no shying away from the opportunity to also display the nation (or selected versions of it).

As Eileen Gallagher, independent director of the Glasgow 2014 board and chair of the ceremonies, culture and Queen’s Baton relay explained: “Our bold and creative vision [is] to showcase our host city and nation”.

She added: “We are not in any way shy about being as Scottish and as Glasgow as we should be, because this is a big, big opportunity. I want people to look at the images we show … and say, ‘I want to be there. I want to go to Glasgow. I want to go to Scotland’.”

These sorts of pictures are often mythical, inclusive visions that have political capital. They are designed to attract tourists, drive investment and promote some form of feel-good factor, a sense of pride, a sense of attachment and a sense of belonging to nation.

Vote for Team Scotland!

Arguably this could not come at a better time for some. For while sport maintains a sense of distance from politics, at least publicly, and both sides in the September independence referendum campaign have been promising to return the compliment, in reality the two could not be more interconnected.

So what impact are the games likely to have? Perhaps none. It is probably rather reductive to reduce the complexities of independence to athletic performance or one major event. The spectacle of the opening ceremony and medal-winning performances (or failures) are probably not reason enough to persuade voters. To say otherwise rather trivialises the intelligence of those voting.

Yet sporting events might provide one of the most powerful manifestations for the performance of Scottishness —- especially in such a global age. Scotland is arguably emblematic of what the late Eric Hobsbawn might suggest as a nation through which sport is so uniquely an effective medium for inculcating national feelings.

Brazil’s bum trip

There are similarities here, albeit differing contexts, between the Commonwealth Games and this year’s World Cup. The national identity of Brazil, like Scotland, is bound with its sporting identity. And look what happened to Brazil when national performance did not live up to expectation. The mood turned following injury to Neymar and more markedly following humiliation at the hands of the Germans.

Political unrest soon followed Brazil’s bum World Cup EPA

Dissonance, mourning and disbelief starkly contrasted with the feel-good factor; deep inequalities and economic disparities resurfaced following a brief pause. Here, sporting success mattered, with performance and levels of patriotism clearly linked. So for the yes campaign, no matter how unfairly, performance could matter. Failure, no matter how defined, could alter the mood.

Then there is the English dimension. If England dominate in Glasgow, would there be the potential for an inverse relation between success and feelings of Scottishness? Might English success manifest in some form of Scottish backlash that could benefit the yes campaign?

As for the broader spectacle, it is likely that the games may well deliver a euphoric high, no matter how ephemeral. Scots may experience intense feelings of patriotism, in a moment of what is somtimes termed “hot nationalism”. It can gloss over the realities of everyday life and the complex intricacies of the referendum.

One only has to think of the euphoria that circulated around London 2012, the version of Britishness on show at the opening ceremony, and the celebration and national pride demonstrated on Super Saturday. Indeed, with the Commonwealth Games exuding Britishness through all its sinews, one might question how Scottish the games can be.

Yet there is little to suggest that there would be long-lasting effects. These temporary moments of attachment, belonging and patriotism are often fleeting. Any euphoric hot nationalist attachment to some form of a mythical or manufactured Scottishness is likely to quickly dissipate. In the end, it is likely to make little difference to the independence referendum.

Michael Silk does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

The Event Panorama: Linking SVCs in White Hmong

Events & seminars - Wed, 23/07/2014 - 23:03
SEMINAR The Event Panorama: Linking SVCs in White Hmong
Wednesday, 23 July 2014 at 4:15 PM - 5:15 PM
Baldessin Room W3.03
Serial verb constructions (SVCs) are well known to function in many languages to increase the detail and complexity of the clause. Typical SVC functions include adding arguments, providing aspectual and deictic information, and conveying resultative and causative meanings. In addition to extending the clause in ways such as these, SVCs in White Hmong (Hmong-Mien) are often used in narrative texts to provide a multi-focal construal of the events described. more»

Way to go: when will you die, how, and with what support?

The Conversation - Wed, 23/07/2014 - 22:26
Coming to terms.Dying by Shutterstock

Every year around half a million people die in England. The success of medicine over the past decades has led to a sustained rise in the average human life expectancy: a third of children born today will live to be 100 years old. However, it does not follow that fewer people are dying. In fact, the annual number of deaths in England has begun to rise and is projected to continue to do so for at least the next 20 years.

How will you die?

What will the trajectory of our final deterioration be like? For around a fifth of us, our deaths will be sudden, and unpredictable – from a large stroke or an accident, for example. A further fifth of us are likely to die from cancer, and will live with relatively good physical function until quite close to death, when there is usually a relatively linear deterioration over weeks. The rest – the majority of us – will live with and die from chronic medical problems such as heart failure, kidney failure and dementia, and our final days, weeks and months will be characterised by relapses and remissions against a background of a slowly progressive deterioration in physical function.

Palliative care

Palliative care is a philosophy of care for people who are approaching the ends of their lives, where the goal is to improve the patient’s comfort and quality of life, rather than trying to extend or increase its quantity. The word palliative comes from the Latin palliare meaning “to cloak” and palliative care focuses on finding out what the worst problems for the patient and their family are, and to then improve them.

Part of the focus of palliative care is on relieving physical symptoms, which are common (though not universal) in people who are dying. More than a third of dying people will experience pain. Effective treatment depends on identifying the likely cause of it. For many types of pain, opioids such as morphine sulphate are the mainstay of treatment. It is important for patients to realise that taking opioids in the right doses for their pain will not cause them to become addicted, or to die more quickly.

A principle of palliative care is that only medication which has the aim of improving comfort is given to people who are thought to be dying. Drugs with longer-term benefits (such as cholesterol-lowering drugs) are usually stopped. Medicines can be given by mouth, or in other forms such as injections or infusions under the skin if the patient finds swallowing difficult.

While assessment and treatment of physical symptoms is a large part of palliative care, it is also essential to address psychological, social and spiritual needs. Cicely Saunders, who founded the modern palliative care movement in the 1960s, defined the concept of Total Pain, suffering that encompasses not just physical but also social, psychological and spiritual dimensions. Therefore in order to control pain in the dying it is necessary to explore these dimensions. Questions such as: “How do you make sense of the future?”, “Where do you find your strength?” and: “What is most important to you?” are often useful.

When do you know it’s the end?

How do we know when to “switch” to palliative care? How do we know when a person is dying? The last weeks of life for most people are characterised by a progressive physical decline, frailty, lethargy, worsening mobility, reduced oral intake, and little or no response to medical interventions. However, these changes can be subtle. In people with frailty and dementia, the dying phase can be difficult to distinguish because patients can live for a long time with a very poor level of function.

It is therefore important to provide palliative care in parallel with, rather than in series with, other medical care. This will include having sensitive conversations with the patient and their carers about their wishes and preferences for the future, in anticipation of their deterioration. For example, many patients would prefer to die at home rather than in hospital and it is essential to explore such preferences while the patient remains well enough to travel.

These conversations can be hard for healthcare professionals, whose training equips them for saving lives, and for whom death is often viewed as failure. Both the doctor and the patient may view talking about death as an admission of defeat. But however uncomfortable these conversations are, the danger of avoiding them is a medicalised death, with more suffering for the patient, and more distress in bereavement for their carers. As Cicely Saunders said: “How we die remains in the memory of those who live on.”

Katherine Sleeman does not work for, consult to, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has no relevant affiliations.

Updated: 25 July 2014/ Responsible Officer:  College Dean / Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications